LOS ANGELES -- After two early questions about what it felt like to lose so badly to the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs last season, Clayton Kershaw leaned back from the microphone and wondered: “Why doesn’t anybody ask me what it feels like after a win in the postseason?”
Great players are often guilty until proven innocent in October, and the numbers tell us that Kershaw -- the most dominant pitcher of his generation -- is 1-3 with a 4.23 ERA in nine postseason games. The last time he pitched in the glare of October, the Cardinals pounded 10 hits off him in four innings and scored seven times to clinch a World Series berth in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium.
That was the taste Kershaw had in his mouth all offseason. He was asked about it even on the day he finalized his seven-year, $215 million contract extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers in January.
“I had to wait a long time for that next one,” Kershaw said. “Thankfully, it came. It’s not like I thought about it every day in the offseason, but it’s not like one day you shake off things. It takes a while.”
Kershaw has nothing to prove in the postseason, aside from the fact that all players have to prove themselves, again and again, in the postseason -- and that’s if they’re lucky enough to get there that often. Kershaw was 1-0 with a 0.69 ERA in two starts against the Atlanta Braves in the division series; for one of those starts, he pitched on three days’ rest. He matched up with Michael Wacha in Game 2 in St. Louis and pitched six two-hit innings, allowing one run, which was unearned, in the 1-0 loss.
Take away Kershaw’s first two appearances in the playoffs -- when he was 20 and 21, had yet to develop his slider and had little idea where his ball was going -- and he has a respectable 3.13 playoff ERA, which includes the Game 6 blowup. Then again, his career ERA in non-postseason games is 2.48, the best for any pitcher with at least 1,000 innings in the modern era.
So, maybe he does have to prove he’s capable of repeatedly bringing that level of dominance to the highest-pressure venues.
“I guess you gain from the experience of it more than anything, knowing I had some successes in the postseason last year and then having the bad one at the end,” Kershaw said. “So, you can kind of use both of those, I guess.”
Pitch efficiency has become an underrated part of Kershaw’s game, but the Cardinals took it away from him in last year's NLCS and it appeared to frustrate him. Kershaw pitched a league-high six complete games this season, but in none of them did he throw as many as 120 pitches. He needed only 107 pitches to throw his 15-strikeout no-hitter on June 18, one of the most coldly efficient pitching performances of all time.
But where was that on Oct. 18 at Busch Stadium? Kershaw got through the first two innings unscathed and got the first out of the third, but everything changed with Matt Carpenter’s at-bat. Carpenter took a slider inside for ball one, then proceeded to foul off seven consecutive pitches. It was Kershaw’s entire repertoire, pitches that ranged in velocity from 75 mph to 95 mph. Three pitches later, Carpenter got an 86 mph slider up that he could handle and yanked it into right field for a double. That 11-pitch at-bat would lead to a 48-pitch inning; the Cardinals would score four times and add five more in the fifth.
“It’s just one of those tough at-bats. The crowd kind of got into it, I was able to foul off pitches and I felt more comfortable as the at-bat went on,” Carpenter recalled Thursday. “I was able to fight off some of his better pitches and hang around long enough to get something I could hit, and hit the double. That wound up being a big hit for us.”
No doubt the Cardinals will look to frustrate Kershaw again Friday afternoon, but as usual, things are dynamic. Kershaw is fresher. He’ll go into Friday’s start on four extra days of rest and having pitched 37 2/3 fewer innings in the regular season.
For another thing, the Cardinals scored 163 fewer runs than they did last season. Instead of hitting .330 with runners in scoring position as they did last year, they hit .254 with RISP.
The Dodgers also planned to change their signs going into Friday’s opener. A year ago, many of the Dodgers believed the Cardinals had gotten wind of catcher A.J. Ellis’ signs and were relaying the location of pitches to batters from second base. So, either the Cardinals have Kershaw’s number or it will just make him mad enough to dominate them as he has everyone else.
“That was last year,” Carpenter said. “I know I’ve been asked a lot about that, but this is a new season. He’s got a new game plan, I’m sure, and we’ll have to come ready to go.”
Kershaw struck out 13 Cardinals in seven scoreless innings the first time he faced them this year. Then, three weeks later, he gave up three runs in seven innings in a game the Dodgers won in St. Louis.
“Different team over there, different team over here for us,” Kershaw said. “But it will feel good to get back out there in the postseason for sure.”